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Worrisome gap in education for black men

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


The National Urban League's annual report on the state of black America is ready for shipping. As it does each year, the survey contains sobering observations and much positive news showing that African-Americans -- as a group -- are increasingly enjoying the nation's broad wealth.

The overview also draws conclusions, as it does each year, that should make the most of the nation's black leaders at all levels re-evaluate their priorities and begin an era of tough introspection. These leaders should be greatly concerned about the vast education attainment gap between black men and black women, and they should be concerned about the long-term implications of this disparity.

Specifically, according to the report, from 1977 to 1997, the number of bachelor's degrees earned by black men increased by 30 percent. During the same period, the number earned by black women rose by 77 percent. The picture for the master's degree is just as dismal: Increases for black men were 8 percent; for black women, 39 percent.

Another study, conducted by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, corroborates the Urban League's findings. It shows that in 1997, 454,000 black women had master's degrees. Black men had 222,000.

Why such a large gap in education attainment?

An easy explanation, one often repeated in the press, is that a disproportionately high number of black men are behind bars. University of Michigan education professor Michael Nettles told the Associated Press, however, that the explanations are more complex.

He said that black men have more employment paths to follow after high school and that many simply bypass college altogether. More black men than women, for example, go from high school into the military. Another explanation is that the financially strapped black family depends on men more than women for essential income, the professor said.

Academic and social options and how black males are treated in public school also help determine who does and who does not attend college. Nettles argues that too many black males are in low-achieving and disciplinary environments, and too few are in advanced placement classes -- a pipeline to college. Almost everyone agrees, off the record, that teachers and school officials generally have lower expectations for black males.

Hugh B. Price, the league's president, is correct when he says that the education attainment gap threatens the future of the black family as an institution. Average black women increasingly are having trouble finding black mates with comparable years of schooling and professional experience.

Studies show that a college degree is universally the surest path to a good job and financial security. Black women are graduating from college and getting good jobs -- positions in corporate board rooms, partnerships in law firms and other high places.

So, as the education gap grows between black men and black women, the economic chasm widens just as fast or faster. "As the economic gap widens, questions of whether black women will find black men who can carry their share in the household will become evident," Price told AP.

As I said at the outset, the time has come for black leaders to initiate an unapologetic process of introspection in the black home. Yes, many public school systems shortchange black children, especially males. But the black family itself has the responsibility of reassessing how it treats the male. Most of what ails the male starts in the home and is perpetuated in the home.

A black man, father, grandfather and former teacher and one whose job is to think about such matters, I am aware of differences in how we rear our girls and our boys.

Denial will not save the day. Truth can, though. And here is some of that awful truth, offered by novelist, playwright and essayist James Baldwin, a black man, in his 1985 book The Evidence of Things Not Seen (a nonfiction work about the Wayne Williams murders in Atlanta):

"There is, according to Andy (Young), a disease peculiar to the Black community, called "sorriness.' I am not a Southerner, and I had never heard this term before. It is a disease that attacks Black males. It is transmitted by Mama, whose instinct -- and it is not hard to see why -- is to protect the Black male from the devastation that threatens him the moment he declares himself a man.

"All of our mothers, and all of our women, live with this small, doom-laden bell in the skull, silent, waiting, or resounding, every hour of every day. Mama lays this burden on Sister, from whom she expects (or indicates she expects) far more than she expects from Brother; but one of the results of this too comprehensible dynamic is that Brother may never grow up. . . ."

To put Baldwin's view another way, we had a saying in the black community when I was a child that went like this: "We raise our girls and love our boys to death."

This is a scary scenario. Baldwin's comments do not explain all that affects the plight of the black male, but they establish a solid starting point. Here are a few of the basic questions we must answer: What does the individual black family expect of the male? Do we demand from him the same that we demand from our females? How can we eliminate this double standard?

The way that we answer these questions will determine the education and economic health of black America.

As understated as it sounds, the Urban league's conclusion is ominous and is worth repeating: "The numerical status of African-American men in higher education is a cause for concern."

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